The woman who greets you at the door has giant retro glasses, green eyebrows, and red and yellow lips. She is After Carolyn: Green, a massive canvas by renowned contemporary artist Nasser Azam and the first thing you see when you enter Costata, the Italianate steakhouse from New York pasta kingpin Michael White. With its saturated colors and wild brushstrokes, the painting projects boldness and excitement; its home restaurant, not so much.
As you walk past Carolyn, the decor recedes into blander, generic tones—dark mahogany wood, burgundy chairs and white tablecloths. This townhouse looked quite similar when it was Fiamma, where White got his start in the city, but these days his cooking lieutenant PJ Calapa (also of Ai Fiori) is running the kitchen. A steady soundtrack of ’90s alt rock matches the stale digs, with a pale sea of collared shirts humming along to Third Eye Blind and Blink-182—stay late and you may witness a spontaneous meaty-knuckled high-fiving session.
If you arrive before your dining companions, settle in at the bar with one of the cocktails conceived by mixology great Eben Freeman. The bartender expertly stirring a Manhattan in a snifter the size of a Big Gulp will provide plenty of distraction until they show.
Move to a table and things get a little shakier. For every hit there’s a miss, a ratio particularly hard to swallow given the hefty prices.
The romaine cacio e pepe ($16) is a wonderful opening salvo; with the crunch of pungent, anchovy-slicked lettuce buttressed by crisp capers and bread crumbs, it’s one of the best chophouse Caesars in town. But bone-marrow panzanella ($17) leaves you sour, its delicate gem lettuce and tiny nubs of marrow set adrift in a pool of vinegar.
Among the crudos, too many hit the unholy trinity of dissatisfaction: skimpy, pricey and underwhelming. The razor clams ($21) are gritty, overtaken by fennel and sopressata; the sardine crostini ($19) slapped around by floral preserved lemon.
Consider them penance for the sin you are about to commit in devouring the restaurant’s laudable costata steak (Italian for “rib eye”). The tomahawk rib for two ($118)—aged nearly 60 days—is basted with melted dry-aged beef trim, and blasted in a 1,900-degree broiler to achieve an exemplary charred, salty crust. The marbled flesh has an appropriately lingering funk, and enough fatty drippings in the bottom of its regal silver dish to render any accompanying sauces irrelevant. The kitchen applies similar treatment to the porterhouse ($58 per person) and bone-in strip ($55 per person), but both are aged for a shorter stint, and lack enough marbling to fend off dryness from the medium-cooked outer edges.
Costata’s sides ($10), like creamed spinach and crispy potatoes, are competently executed, but humdrum. Better to supplant your meal—in trademark White style of rich-on-rich gluttony—with half portions of a fresh pasta. Chewy, gnocchilike cavatelli ($17) with toasty fontina and melting oxtail ragù is a fine, if excessively meaty, choice.
Order dessert—say, a perfectly good baked apricot crostatina with almonds—and you may find your fork chasing the hot silver crock around the big white plate; attempt to steady it and you burn yourself. This, perhaps, is a small annoyance, but it reflects the half-thought-out attitude of the rest the joint. Costata just might be a cautionary tale on expansion: White, who has opened three restaurants in a year or so, also whiffed with his last venture, the widely panned pizzeria Nicoletta. And diners have started catching on to this thinness of attention—on a recent Friday night, the restaurant was half empty.
In a city surging with visionary restaurants, where you can find great steak among strokes of culinary high art, it’s not enough to just serve good meat. Costata is more a faded reprint than a masterpiece.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Costata for two, romaine cacio e pepe, cavatelli
Price per person: Close to $165 for some crudo, shared salads and appetizers, steak, sides, dessert and enough booze to fortify you for when the check comes
Vibe: Take off your tie, deposit your Wall Street bonus and go get a steak.
Cocktail chatter: Pat LaFrieda, who dry-ages the meat for Costata, leaves the bone dust on the steaks after they are cut with a band saw, which allows the meat to develop that mineral tang not just around the exterior, but on the cut sides as well.
Soundcheck: Dinner party downstairs, frat party upstairs
By Daniel S. Meyer